Quora: ask any question

I could not find enough time to post here recently. I certainly have been doing more reading than writing. So, I thought why not to share some of things I read? And I decided to tell you about Quora.

As you most probably already know, Quora is a questions-answers website which succeeded in doing what Google and multiple other companies failed at: provide a decent quality of responses.

Several months ago they even created their own book “Best of Quora 2010-2012“, compiled of best answers, available for free download. It covers quite a range of topics. From Steve Jobs to moldy cheese, from neurological basis of curiosity to Jay-Z. I hope to find time and selectively read the most intriguing ones.

quora

In a meanwhile, here is the short list of questions on the website itself that I found noteworthy:

Add me if you are there.

Moonwalking with Einstein review: memory & mnemonics

I’ve just finished listening to an interesting audiobook about memory and mnemonic techniques: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Author is a young journalist who decided to try all the memory improvement techniques himself but remain sceptical and objective while doing so. He talks about memory itself and the way it was influenced by spread of written language and by technology. Than, he tells us stories about people with extraordinarily good memory and amnesiacs, about people who had an ordinary memory but became memory champion and about mnemonic techniques they used.

moonwalking ith-einstein the art and science of remembering everything by joshua foer

 

Joshua begins his quest with a totaly ordinary, if not mediocre, memory. Bus after long preparation and work with best so-called “mental athletes” wins one of US memory champtionships. Although he himself acknoledges the fact that most of techniques he learned are useless in day-to-day life, I actually extracted a lot of intersting and useful ideas from the book. And this is what I would like to share with you.

 

Interesting facts and ideas

  • Memory becomes highly underestimated nowadays because of all the various ways to store information “externally”. But in fact, the better we remember our life, the more connections we can make. Memory is also necessary to understand and appreciate many things in life. For example, a person who never read or heard anything about China would not get as much culturally from the trip there as somebody who studied history and architecture of this country for a couple of months.
  • One of the people Joshua interviewed for the book tried to increase “subjective” (perceived) life expectancy by improving his memory. The idea is that the more events you remember the longer life seems to be.
  • Best chess-players don’t really evaluate all the possible moves logically. Instead, they recognize familiar patterns from other games.
  • Cab drivers in London pass obligatory and very demanding exam called “The Knowledge”. It has been found that those who passed it after months of preparation have larger brain region that is responsible for orientation in space. Interestinlgy, brains of “memory champions” are actually quite typical.
  • Odyssey and Iliad were initially created the way that made it easier to remember it and paraphrase verbally instead of writing down.
  • We can remember almost unlimited number of pictures. At least the fact whether we’ve seen one or not. That is why many memory techniques revolve around transforming other types of information into visual images.
  • Also, Joshua acquaints us with several interesting, although ambigous personalities, such as Daniel Tammet, Ed Cooke, Tony Buzan and others.

Mnemonic techniques:

  • Some savants naturally use synesthesia (mixing visual, audiotory and other types of perceptions) to enchance remembering and learning through associations.
  • “Chunking” is a technique of breaking information into smaller pieces. For example, it is easier to remember a phone number when it is presented as 12-34-56 than when it is presented as 123456.
  • Major system. To use this technique, one should use the same consonants for certain numbers. Then, to remember a number, one uses these consonants to form words, which are supposedly easier to remember, by inserting vowels.
  • Memory palace. Images are placed in a certain space (appartment, city route or real imagined palace). The more absurd, shiny, sexual and animate the images the better.
  • Speech preparation. Try to remember key topics to cover in your speech by visualizing them.
  • Remembering texts. Try to feel empathy with an author, to resonate emotionally with a text.
  • Deliberate practice: here Joshua gives just another interpretation of the same old study, which almost everybody mentioned recently. The basic conclusion is that people who are best at something did not necessarily spent more time practicing it. But they practised differently.
  • In essense, deliberate practise is  an effort to consciously improve one’s level of mastery instead of stopping at the minimum acceptable level (“ok zone”). For example, one might try to type faster than he or she would normally do in order to progress.
  •  Deliberate practice also comprises of constant adjustment to feedback and focusing on the most difficult aspects. For example, top violinists practiced most difficult pieces instead of just playing what they already know. Top chess-players re-played best chess games in their heads trying to understand the reasons behind each move. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin learned to write essays by first attempting to cover a certain topic by himself and then comparing the texts to those of best writers.
  • Person – action – object system. According to this mnemonic system, one should come up with a person, action and object for each of 100 digits: from 00 to 99. Then, these “PAOs” are used to form sentences in order to remember long lists of numbers.
  • Remembering names. Try to come up with a meaningful association. For example, nobody of people studied could remember name “Baker” (no associations) but majority remembered profession “baker” (a lot of associations).
  • The reason why people sometimes get an impression that times flies faster might be related to the fact that our life becomes more boring and we get fewer new experiences. In other words, we have less interesting things to remember. So, make your life more memorable!
  • Practical advice to remember things in day-to-day life: pay attention. For example, focus on remembering that name instead of just waiting for your time to introduce yourself.
However, it is less clear how to apply it all to learning things that might actually be useful, such as grammar rules, math formulas or just life experiences. Any ideas?
Overall, there are not so many practically applicable things in the book but it is still very interesting to read.
Here is the short interview with an author that covers many of the topics from the book:

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

Feynman is one of the brightest physicists of the 20th century who also happened to be a talented lecturer and an author of a book which is fun to read. Here are some excerpts from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” that I found interesting:

Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman - book review & quotes

On freedom:

So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel heed by a need to maintain your position In the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Isn’t it a modern luxury that very few of us can afford?

 

On pointless communication

When it came time to evaluate the conference at the end, the others told how much they got out of it, how successful it was, and so on. When they asked me, I said, “This conference was worse than a Rorschach test: There’s a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!

 

On mindfulness and watching your thoughts become dreams:

I also noticed that as you go to sleep the ideas continue, but they become less and less logically interconnected. You don’t notice that they’re not logically connected until you ask yourself, “What made me think of that?” and you try to work your way back, and often you can’t remember what the hell did make you think of that!

So you get every illusion of logical connection, but the actual fact is that the thoughts become more and more cockeyed until they’re completely disjointed, and beyond that, you fall asleep.

After four weeks of sleeping all the time, I wrote my theme, and explained the observations I had made. At the end of the theme I pointed out that all of these observations were made while I was watching myself fall asleep, and I don’t really know what it’s like to fall asleep when I’m not watching myself. I concluded the theme with a little verse I made up, which pointed out this problem of introspection:

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How to win any negotiation: summary of “Getting to Yes” by William Ury

I listened to Getting to Yes by William Ury who is probably the most recognized negotiations expert few months ago.

If you never heard about William Ury, short TED talk might be the best way to get to know about his impressive career:

And here are the notes that I wrote down while reading it. Probably they will be of some use for you as well:

1. Always set a goal of negotiation form the very beginning: “You want to sell at the higher price and I want to buy at the lower price. Let’s find the fair price that can both agree upon.”
2. Always try to understand interests behind a position. How did you arrive at that price? Why do you consider it just?
3. Always repeat the position of another side: “Correct me if I’m wrong. Do I understand correctly that you consider this price to be just because…”
4. Always set a principle, external standard to judge the agreement. E.g. fair solution.
5. Separate a person from a problem. “We are very grateful for everything you did for us but it’s very important for us to arrive at the fair solution.”
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Superfreakonomics review

Book with a stupid name Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner appeared to be quite surprisingly interesting and was listened on my way to work and back home in a week or so. I would probably even say that the sequel is better than the first book – Freakonomics.

Authors position themselves as economists doing research into non-conventional topics. However, I feel that it would be more appropriate to say that book is in the sociology field. Yes, individual & group level economics is often discussed, usually through the prism of decision-making. But in overall it’s more about psychology.

Topics covered are global warming (or cooling?) & ecology, technological & scientific breakthroughs, economics of prostitution, algorithmic search for potential terrorists based on banking activity and human altruism which is covered in more details in video below. In other words, as authors confess themselves, there is no uniting topic.

Superfreakonomics

Superfreakonomics is full of curious facts. For instance, you have statistically higher chances to get into trouble if you walk home drunk then if you drive home drunk.

All topics are presented as stories revolving around particular characters and therefore easily digested. One of the main lessons sounds quite banal and generic: “people respond to incentives, sometimes unpredictably”. However, we forget about it more often than we’d like to think.

You might use this RSA video made from co-author’s speech as a trailer of some sort:

Update 2010.09.22: It turns out they make a movie based on the first book! Trailer is below:

Review of awesome My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

Finished listening to My Stroke of Insight by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor today. It appeared to be as interesting as I expected, so I’d like to share it with you.

Jill is a Harvard PhD who built a highly successful career in science. Everything went just perfect till the moment when she got a stroke on one of her mornings. As a result, she lost almost all of her cognitive and physical skills, but survived. Moreover, eventually she finally recovered which took more than 8 years. Step be step she learned everything: from speech recognition, to walking and reading.

Jill Bolte Taylor

The Book tells her personal story and gives a basic understanding of our brain. According to author our brain functions can be separated by hemispheres: left and right. Right one lives in a present moment and is responsible for our sensory feelings, intuition, and perception of universe as a whole. Left one in turn is our rational mind, future planning, past evaluation, speech, critical thinking, etc.

After the stroke Jill lost functions of left hemisphere. The most interesting part is that despite the loss of cognitive functions, she describes her experience with sincere rapture. She emotionally tells us about feeling of “deep inner piece and bliss” and expresses ideas that I highly connected with a topic of mindful meditation that kind of follows me last month. BTW, here are two awesome Google Talks about it: first, second. I even decided to listen to book of the latter one, but that’s a separate story.

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